For every Chris McCarron, whose mounts earned a record $264 million before he retired last Sunday, there are countless jockeys like Felipe Martinez, nondescript riders who toil in the shadows, earning a living by winning the odd claiming race.
Martinez, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, is no less dedicated to racing than McCarron. He just isn’t in the national spotlight, has never won a Kentucky Derby or a Breeders’ Cup race, and would be thrilled just to win an allowance race at Hollywood Park, where he presently plies his trade.
"He’s just a blue-collar guy who shows up every morning, and every horse you put him on, whether it’s 5-1 or 50-1, he gives you 110 percent effort," says trainer Doug O’Neill of Martinez, who will be 38 on July 10. O’Neill took out his trainer’s license in 1994. With Martinez aboard, bettors have learned not to overlook any horse O’Neill sends out. The 34-year-old native of Dearborn, Michigan, is a respected fixture among the wagering cognoscenti. He ranks fourth in the current Hollywood standings with nine victories from just 42 starters, 21 percent. O’Neill’s best horses are stakes winners Classy Cara and Sky Jack.
Martinez had nine wins, eight seconds and eight thirds from 78 mounts at press time, with two wins, two seconds and a third in 12 rides for O’Neill.
"One of Felipe’s most important assets is that he’s articulate and very helpful after the race," said O’Neill, who first joined forces with Martinez four years ago when they worked for trainer Hector Palma. Doug was a groom and Felipe exercised the barn’s horses.
"Felipe has good suggestions," O’Neill said. "He’s very under-rated. He’s not only a talented rider, but he expresses himself well and that’s beneficial. It enables a trainer to try and correct any problems a horse might have. He’s a hard worker with a good attitude."
OK, so Martinez gives his all on every horse he rides. Is O’Neill inferring that some riders don’t give their best if their horse doesn’t have a chance to win?
"I think so," O’Neill said candidly. "That’s my observation, anyway. I’d never do it, but certain trainers might say to their jockey, ”˜Hey, if you’re not going to run (in the) top three, wrap up and save it for next time.’
"Most of my blue-collar owners would rather have fifth (money) than save their horse for another race. We have a lot of bills to pay and around here, and the purses are good enough that even two percent, which is what fifth place pays, is enough to pay part of a bill."
Fifth money from a $32,000 purse is $640, tip money to a guy like McCarron, but a decent week’s salary for some folks.
Since Martinez rides mostly lower quality stock, he is an expert on their ailments and subsequent diagnoses.
"Cheaper horses were once better horses," Martinez explained. "They get problems and then they go downhill. I’d say 50 percent of the horses I ride have some kind of problem, and you have to deal with it. I’ll talk to the horse’s groom, go right to the source, and try to correct any ills."
As for his success with O’Neill, Martinez says it’s simply a matter of returning the favor.
"He gives 120 percent for me," Felipe said, "so the least I can do is give 110 percent for him."
THE HOMESTRETCH: David Hofmans hopes to race John and Jerry Amerman’s 3-year-old star Siphonic at Del Mar, which begins its 43-day meet on July 24. The son of Siphon is back at Hollywood Park after suffering an ankle injury in March 17 San Felipe Stakes and is expected to breeze soon. "He looks tremendous," Hofmans said. "Everything’s clean, the X-rays, the nuclear scan, so we’re holding our breath." . . . Scotty McClellan, who booked mounts for McCarron for more than two decades, won’t take on another rider in the immediate future. He says he plans to represent only Alex Solis "for the next two or three months, and see what happens after that." . . . With crack sprinter Snow Ridge recently retired due to a sesamoid injury, the late-developing Explicit could become a major challenger to Kona Gold and Xtra Heat for sprint honors. The 5-year-old trained by Ian Jory won the True North on Belmont day and Jory hopes the Kentucky-bred will earn a trip to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Arlington Park on Oct. 26. "We’re looking at the (Grade I) Forego at Belmont on Sept. 1 for his next race," Jory said. "It’s hard to make money with a sprinter. We had a choice not to ship and run at Hollywood Park for $100,000 against Kona Gold, or ship and run in the True North for $250,000 in a race that we were top weight. It was kind of a no-brainer. Explicit is getting better and stronger all the time, but he always had the cut to be a nice horse. He just took a while to get going. Lonnie Meche gets on with him really well and really seems to suit him. He can just sit him off the pace or go to the front. We ran in the True North last year and Stevens was riding him, and nothing against Gary, but he sent him up there in :21 and change and the horse ended up tiring for third, whereas this year, Lonnie sat off Yonaguska, who’s got speed, and just took him when he was ready for him. I’ve run at Arlington a couple of times. I think my horse will like the surface and he ships well, too. He’s a great traveler."
|SIPHONIC ”” 3-year-old star may make the scene at Del Mar.|
BATTLER BOB””Second five straight times, Neil Drysdale soph finally found winners’ circle with addition of blinkers, should roll all the way into stakes competition.
KAFWAIN””The Thoroughbred Corp.’s $720,000 son of Cherokee Run broke maiden in style after disappointing in debut, is one of Bob Baffert’s Derby hopes for 2003.
RIVER BRIDGE””French-bred mare found her niche sprinting on turf for consistently successful Darrell Vienna barn, should continue winning vs. high-priced claimers or better.